Once baby arrives, your days of soundly sleeping through the night and maintaining a regular cooking schedule are pretty much gone. This might lead you to think air travel is also out of the question, but no one should go a few years without taking a vacation. And a weekend trip to your brother’s house doesn’t count. We mean a full-fledged trip, complete with time off work and a flight to somewhere you really want to visit.
As intimidating as it might sound, conquering airport security, landing without a scream session, and everything in between are all completely possible with an infant along for the ride. We spoke to two parents who happen to be experts when it comes to flying with a baby. Their tips will help you prepare for your big trip, and probably avoid a few headaches.
1. Figure out what type of seating will fit your needs
Not surprisingly, safety is usually the biggest concern. For Corinne McDermott, founder of Have Baby Will Travel who’s a pro at vacationing with little ones, purchasing a separate seat is often the best option in this department. Her reasoning makes a lot of sense as this is what the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says on their website. In this case, you’ll need an FAA-approved car seat for children who weigh less than 22 pounds. Depending on your child’s weight, it can be rear- or forward-facing. If you’re traveling with a child who weighs more than 22 pounds, you might want to consider a Child Aviation Restraint System (CARES) instead.
While the FAA prefers purchasing a separate seat, keeping your infant in your lap might not be as dangerous as you first think. Jason Steele, a journalist with extensive experience covering family travel who holds a commercial pilot’s license, leans more toward lap seats. But is it really as safe? He thinks so, and according to USA Today, 2015 marked the safest year on record for flying. Domestically, the story said the last incidence of a fatal crash on a passenger airline was in 2009. “I really think you’re safer on an airplane that you are even sitting in your own house,” Steele said. And for what it’s worth, he’s a huge fan of CARES.
Comfort is also a big consideration. “For an infant under 1 year old, I think many parents will find that to be comfortable,” Steele said. While you can keep a baby on your lap up until they reach age 2, it could end up being incredibly uncomfortable for both the parent and the child. But it also depends on what type of seat you have. Those sitting in business and first class have more leeway here.
For kids nearing 2 or ones who fall on the heavier end of the spectrum, a separate seat might be the best option. “I have memories of a giant, almost 2 year old on my lap with the thought that I’d pay just about anything to get them their own seat,” McDermott said. And Steele is on the same page.
If cost is really a limiting factor, a lap ticket might be the only feasible answer. Even still, there’s some confusion on how much these tickets cost. The rule is 10% of the regular ticket price, but Steele pointed out this doesn’t specify which ticket the airline is using to set the rate. And some airlines don’t even charge a lap fee for domestic flights and select international ones. Steele said it might be worth it to partially base your destination on these rules. “If it’s a toss up between going to Hawaii and going to the Bahamas, maybe we go to Hawaii because we’re going to save hundreds of dollars on these fees,” he said.
2. Research the rules and prepare for some headaches
Parents traveling with children in their laps have the option of waiting until they arrive at the airport until they purchase the child ticket, but it’s probably not a good idea. Why? Airport staff might not be as up to snuff on the rules as you would expect. Steele recommended purchasing a lap ticket well in advance, maybe even when you get yours. “If someone tells you you can just take care of that at the airport, call back and talk to someone else,” he said.
The 10% lap fee can also put a dent in your travel budget if you’re not careful. In some cases, you may end up paying 10% of a ticket that cost substantially more than the one you purchased. “It’s worth it for you to argue with them, frankly,” Steele said.
Unfortunately, car seats can pose a problem as well. “Some car seat manufacturers will void their warranty if you’ve checked your car seat as luggage,” McDermott explained. Think of how rough your suitcase can look after being handled.
One happy exception for traveling with a baby is the standard liquid requirements are waived. According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), “Formula, breast milk, and juice in quantities of greater than 3.4 ounces or 100 milliliters are allowed in carry-on luggage and do not need to fit within a quart-sized bag.” For the easiest trip through TSA, McDermott suggested keeping all liquids related to your baby together, “so that it’s easy to take out and present for inspection.”
Finally, know what you need for documents. Different airlines have different policies, but you really should bring along something that allows staff to verify your child is actually less than 2 years old. According to Steele, Southwest Airlines is particularly strict about this. “You can use a passport, a birth certificate, or an immunization record,” he said. “Even just a picture.” If you’re going international, sorry, but you’re going to need a passport for your baby. According to Steele, trying to work around this to find exceptions just isn’t worth the frustration.
3. Be prepared with lots of essentials
Finding yourself stuck at the airport with waning baby supplies is something no parent needs to experience. “You want to have more diapers and at least double the amount of food and formula you think you will need for the duration of your travel day,” McDermott offered. She also suggested parents who formula feed their babies look into disposable liners to avoid worrying about washing and sterilizing.
If you’re at all confused about where to start in terms of packing, check out McDermott’s no-fail list. And don’t forget about yourself either. According to Steele, “You want to carry on anything you can’t be without for the first 24 hours after you land.” This way you’ll be able to get by should you arrive sans bags.
This also means bringing some spare clothes. Unfortunately, McDermott learned this the hard way. “I was three-quarters of the way through a movie when my son made what I though was just a productive burp,” she said. “And then the entire contents of his bottle ended up all over both of us, which woke up his sister, who then promptly threw up all over us as well.” There’s a place for minimalism, but essentials is not that place.
4. When it comes to extras, minimalism is best
In stark contrast to making sure you have everything imaginable in the food, clothing, and cleanup department, everything else should be kept as minimal as possible. Many companies make what they like to call travel systems for babies, but Steele says they’re just too big to be practical. “My wife and I, our instinct was to buy the biggest, most expensive, and greatest thing for our first, most precious child,” he said. “That is an instinct I believe in fighting when it comes to travel gear.” Instead, Steele said he and his wife opt for what’s called a car seat carrier, which is pretty manageable. Once his children outgrow the car seats, he sticks with a sturdy, compact stroller that folds flat for traveling through the airport.
Minimalism goes for entertainment as well. You don’t want to bring every toy you own because they’ll take up far too much space, and you run the risk of losing things. “Our iPad has replaced our portable DVD player, books, games, and a myriad of other toys and distractions while significantly lightening our bags,” McDermott said. Even if you’re not big on screen time for your kids at home, which is the case for McDermott, airport and airplane time can sort of be a special treat.
5. Resist the urge to arrive ridiculously early
While this is a short tip, it’s really worth mentioning. While you might run into issues with international travel for very young children, you’re better off keeping airport time to a minimum in most cases. Before you leave for the airport, check to make sure your flight hasn’t been pushed back. If it has, you’re better off at your own house. “We’ve had that happen before where our flight was delayed for two or three hours and we stayed home,” Steele said. “We got to the gate and saw beleaguered travelers who’d been there the whole time.” While that might fly with adults, it’s not something you want to experiment with when a baby’s concerned.
6. Handle ear pain like a pro
Most babies become fussy during takeoff and landing because the change in cabin pressure hurts their ears. It all comes down to timing your child’s meals. “Eating, drinking, or sucking on a pacifier are all likely to help,” McDermott said and Steele wholeheartedly agrees. It’s easy to figure out for takeoff, but you need to pay a little more attention when it comes to the descent. “When they tell you to turn off your electronic devices, it’s a perfect time to turn off your device and start feeding the baby,” Steele said.
If things are really bad for your little one, McDermott said a bit of acetaminophen can be a good option. And if you do run into fussiness, know that you shouldn’t feel bad about it. Babies cry, so no one should expect perfect behavior at all times.
As long as you follow these tips, you’ll make it to your destination just fine. You aren’t going to stop liking travel just because you have a baby. ” It can sometimes feel like a lot of work, but it’s worth it,” McDermott said. “And every trip afterwards will get easier and easier.
Follow Christine on Twitter @christineskopec